Maine Journal, Part IV

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “The State of Maine: Not all lobster bibs and brisk swims.” This “Maine Journal” in his Impromptus is a supplement to the piece. For Parts I, II, and III of the journal, go here, here, and here. It concludes today.

I have a friend who grew up in South Dakota. For many years, she has spent summers in Maine, because her husband has a family home here. What I mean is, there is a home in her husband’s family. They use it. About a year ago, my friend told me something very interesting:

“I love South Dakota, because you can see everything. There are no trees. The sky is huge. You can see for miles. In Maine, you can’t see anything. There are trees everywhere. You just can’t see anything.”

Her statement sort of charmed me, theoretically. But now, driving through Maine, I can see she is right: Unless you’re on the coast, I guess, you can’t see anything. There is no such thing as a “scenic drive,” that I can find. On either side of the road, there is a wall of pine trees. You can’t get a vista — a scenic view. There is much beauty behind the trees, I know. But on the road — the walls of trees.

Maine has a distinctive smell, I think — a wonderful smell. (I’m not talking about the mills.) I remember it from earlier days. Must be the pine trees. Such a fresh smell. (And it’s true that a paper mill is just about the worst smell in the world.) (At least it used to be that way. I can’t vouch for now.)

I am looking out at a lake. The waves are lapping, but everything is pretty much still. The loons are calling loonily. It’s like a parody of Maine (as I said about something in Part I of this journal). An Epcot Maine. An almost unreal, mythical Maine. But it’s very much real, and perfect.

Tucker Carlson has a number of his Daily Caller staff with him. He takes them around the lake in a boat. He plays cards with them. They soak it up. This is exactly what our guy, Bill Buckley, did. (I mean, National Review’s guy.) The boat, the cards, etc.

I arrive in L-A — Lewiston-Auburn, the twin cities. I know there are some pretty rough neighborhoods. Yesterday in Portland, I asked a friend, “Should I get out of the car? Is it safe enough in those neighborhoods?” Yes, he said. “It’s still Maine.”

I love that sentence: “It’s still Maine.”

There is a cathedral. (I don’t know if it’s technically a cathedral. It looks like one to me.) It’s the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. I think, “The Lewiston Notre Dame.” Reminds me of that Parisian landmark.

I see onion domes. What, is this Moscow? No, I’m looking at the Kora Temple, a Masonic building.

This is so French — so Maine. They don’t have a Coliseum. They have a Colisée. Later, I read that it’s a “multi-purpose arena.”

Lewiston has a Strawberry Avenue. Is that a great street name or what? Strawberry Avenue. Reminds me of this famous phrase (which Bill Buckley loved): “Toasted Suzie is my ice cream.”

I meet some lovely Thai people, who have a restaurant. Will they melt in this pot? Will their children?

Lewiston is not pretty, but Bates College is — a classic New England campus. Years ago, I knew a woman who had graduated from Bates. She claimed that it was just about the hardest-grading college in the country. “A Bates C is a Harvard A.”

Hmmm . . .

Some neighborhoods look very, very sad — tattered. Just about the only thing that enlivens one neighborhood is the garb of the Somalian women: colorful garb, contrasting with the general gray.

I walk into a store on Main Street (or the equivalent). Turns out to be a Somalian store. I think they are a little surprised to see me. One of the products on the shelves is airmail envelopes. Remember those? I haven’t seen them in ages . . .

Outside a community center, Somalian boys are playing a rowdy game of basketball. They look pretty much like other American kids, enjoying an American game. Will they become Mainers? Downeasters? Are they already?

A lot depends on the answer to that question. The nature of those boys’ lives is at stake. So is the nature of the society they inhabit.

Back in Portland, I notice that people on the street give me a friendly hello. Not a meek, hesitant, or perfunctory hello, but a confident and full one. This comes from women, too. The women have a weathered look, many of them.

City Hall is a sight to behold: stately, elegant, beautiful. I can’t remember seeing a better one than Portland’s. It has an air of perfection.

I have said that Mainers are proud of their state — that they have a virtually Texan state pride — and that is true. But they leave the state in droves, or the young people do. They have no choice. There aren’t opportunities enough at home. They have to go elsewhere, to make their living.

Governor LePage is doing what he can to reverse that. He wants to foster conditions that allow people to stay, if they want. He is trying to make Maine business-friendlier — but he is running up against a social-democratic culture.

Two years ago, I interviewed another governor, Susana Martinez of New Mexico. She too is a conservative Republican. She said that she had no higher goal than to make New Mexico a state that young people could remain in. As it was, they needed to leave, to get ahead.

I’d like to quote once more from LePage’s State of the State address this year:

We must keep our young people in Maine. Recently, I asked some Bowdoin College students, “What can we do to keep you here?” One of them was Grégoire Faucher from Madawaska. He is eager to hear what the future of Maine holds for him.

Comment ça va, Grégoire? Ça me fait plaisir de vous avoir ici ce soir. [How’s it going, Grégoire? I’m happy to see you here tonight.]

Unfortunately, Grégoire hears more about job prospects in Boston or New York or even New Hampshire than right here in Maine. He wants to stay in Maine. But he may have to leave to find higher-paying jobs and better opportunities.

I mentioned earlier that Maine has two nicknames: Vacationland and the Pine Tree State. I wonder whether that first designation is slightly insulting, or irksome, to natives. Maine is Vacationland to us outsiders, for sure — and a glorious one. But, for Mainers, it’s where they live. And life can be exceptionally hard.